Writing Question — How to Outline

matt_robare  asks the following:

Q: "How do your make your outlines?"

A: Not as often as I wish. So far in my writing career, the only story I outlined was NULL-A CONTINUUM, and therefore I was able to write it in record time. That book was a delight to write. Nothing has ever been so easy: everyone should outline.

Usually what I do (and I do NOT recommend this undisciplined style of writing be imitated by any new writers) is simply make up a rather simple hero with a rather simple goal, and a rather simple villain with a rather simple goal, and I write the story as if it were a chessgame. Then I just play out the whole chessgame until the villain is checkmated or stalemated.

The way a chessgame works is this: white makes a move, and then black makes a move. Each move is constrained to a small number of possibilities, and each move has a cost, and each move is directed toward a clear goal. The hero makes a difficult choice between two possible moves, the bad and the worse, and then the villain makes a move.–and what I try to do (the readers can judge whether I succeed or not) is make the villain make smart moves, not doing something atrociously dumb merely to move the plot along.

Let me digress a moment to complain about plot-induced stupidity. This is when a hero, or a villain, does something out of character merely because the creaky plot has to be crowbarred away from what would logically happen and onto the next scene. If your hero has to do something stupid, let him do it in the very first scene, so that the attempt to recover from that mistake, or the tragic inability to recover from that mistake, is what drives the plot.

So I tend to write in a step by step fashion. Whenever the hero does something, I put myself int the villain’s shoes, and I think: what does he know (because no character can use out-of-character knowledge) and I think: what is the best move for him to make at this moment to achieve his goals?

One thing I have done from time to time is make a character sheet for my characters. You heard me: I take a D&D sheet, or a Superworld PC sheet, and I write up his appearance (so I do not forget his eye color) his equipment, what he is wearing, his skills, powers and abilities (most of my characters have powers and abilities), I list his parents and his education I list what he was doing five years ago and ten years ago, so I know his background. (I have a rule of thumb: if a time comes when I can tell, without thinking about it, what the characters taste in music is, then I know the character does not need more work.) And I list his goals. Each character should have at least two, and they should be mutually exclusive.

I make sure I know the villain’s goals. I make up the villain’s justification for his goals. Everyone has a justification. A villain who is evil merely because the plot requires him to be evil for the sake of evil is hokum.

If you have seen me making fun of books written by better authors than I, now you know why. I cannot enjoy books (even books I want to enjoy) when I cannot understand what "moves" the badguys are trying to make. Let me use three famous examples of books I have criticized in the past:  HAVE SPACE SUIT WILL TRAVEL by Robert Heinlein, BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts, and AMBER SPYGLASS by Phillip Pullman.

In the first book, the Wormface race is never shown to be up to anything. In one line it is implied that they are trying to kidnap or pressure Peewee’s father, a famous scientist, but, aside from that, what is their plan?

In BLINDSIGHT, the author daringly attempted to portray what a truly alien form of consciousness might be like, one with no free will and no self-awareness. I salute his ambition, but I found I could not enjoy the story because the aliens did not (by the author’s intention) have any purposeful activity. I suppose that having your protagonist facing a raw force of nature, a snowstorm in the Arctic, or a giant white whale at sea, can be made into a gripping drama, but in this case, the scramblers were building some giant machine in space whose meaning and point was never clear to me, and whether they were hostile or not toward the human race, or even whether they were aware of them, was likewise unclear. The human race could have stood well away from the machine and watched the goings-on without provoking the scramblers, perhaps analyzing the superior supertech from a distance until they understood it, and, as far as I can tell from the plot, that would have been a wiser strategy. There was no need I could see for the conflict. The conflict that did take place, I did not get what was at stake.

In AMBER SPYGLASS, the Evil Church of Evil never seemed to be up to anything in particular, at least nothing that made sense to me. They at one point are trying to sever the souls of children to keep them innocent of sex, but the destruction of souls theoretically should be the last thing a Church, even an Evil Church of Evil, would be attempting. They send out an assassin to get Lyra, to prevent her from being the new Eve of a new race, but the motive was not clear, at least not to me.

If the leader of the Evil Church of Evil had been a player character in a role playing game, he would have come up with a better plan. Ditto for the scramblers, the wormfaces, and so on.

You will laugh, but, of all villains, the one I respect as the most realistic in science fiction writing is Marc C. "Blackie" DuQuesne from the absurd pulp extravaganza SKYLARK OF SPACE by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. How, you are wondering, how can I admire an unrealistic Snidley Whiplash blackhat from an overwritten space opera like SKYLARK and have the gall to mock award winning books like AMBER SPYGLASS? Simple: Blackie DuQuesne had an established goal, a definite personality, and he was tough and ruthless and cool under fire and most importantly, he was smart. DuQuesne was more impressive a villain even than the sinister Boskonians from LENSMAN, because he was portrayed as a man with some superhumanly admirable qualities, even though devoted to evil. You knew what he wanted.

To move from the absurd to the sublime, Lucifer, the archangel of Hell, in Milton’s PARADISE LOST is a realistic villain or magnificent proportions: literally larger than life, a creature superior to a human being, devoted to hellish purposes, unrepentant, torn with hidden doubts, and yet able to clothe his villainy in terms so appealing that many an unwary reader is deceived as well (for example, William Blake famously made the comment that Milton was of the devil’s party–showing that Milton understood the true nature of evil, and Blake did not.) Lucifer is portrayed as a spirit with some admirable superhumanly  qualities, even though devoted to himself. You knew what he wanted.

I strongly suspect that these famous authors never made up what their villains wanted. If they had been hired to act as attorneys, representing their villains in a law case, I wonder whether they could not have presented the case in the light most favorable to their clients, and uttered their justification.

Q: "More importantly, how do you write 500 pages? Most I’ve ever gotten was around 50 for a story that went absolutely nowhere."

That I can answer more simply: you write by writing. Set yourself a certain amount of time, or a certain number of pages, or a certain period in the week, but get it done.

The craft of writing consists primarily of bravery in the face of blank pages. Your task is to fill them.

Remove all distractions. Stay away from television, the Internet, whatever might pull you from your task. Fill your quota. If you set yourself the task of writing a short story a week, by the end of the year, you will have 52 short stories. Harlan Ellison can do it. I can do it. You can do it.

Heinlein and Poul Andersen both set themselves a page quota per day. Heinlein was 4, I think. That means 4 pages of finished material, come rain, come shine, in sickness or in health, and whether or not you have soccer practice, graduation, or an operation that day. Get it done.

Real writers do not get writers block. You write whether you have writer’s block or not. Exercise: work up a sweat. Keep away from the radio. You will find that your mind, when it is unoccupied, and your body is working hard, will produce the idea you missed. Do yard work. Do push ups. Do not clean your room or do your taxes or do any other task that seems to demand your time when you are on the clock. When you are on the clock, it is writing time. Write.

Finish what you start. Even if it ends badly, even if it stinks, you can sell it. If you do not finish it, you cannot sell it. Something you think is terrible might be exactly the size and type of tale the editor needs that month to fill up his magazine. It is his decision, not yours.

Finally, let me tell you to ignore my advice. I have never had the problem of writing too little. I wish I could write too little. My problem is that I write too much. My books are always being cut into trilogies; my short stories are always half again or twice what the editor asked for. I have sold stories only due to the grace of God and the generosity of the editors involved.